A celebration of female travel pioneers
Flying back from Portugal a few weeks ago I was sat next to an old lady (at 90 I’m sure she’ll forgive me for describing her as that!). She was on her way home from visiting her children, but her first travels were a bit more exotic then easyJet. Through the flight she had me gripped by stories of how she travelled around the world in the early 1950s, working as a doctor. She had a car shipped to the States and drove it from Miami, across Canada and then around New Zealand, across Australia and on to South Africa where she travelled into the Congo, despite being on her own and having a broken arm. Makes travel today look easy! Her story got me thinking about other female travel pioneers. The women who didn’t just have to take on their own fears to see the world but had to battle society’s expectations of how a woman should behave too. Here are just some of the female travellers that paved the way for us all.
Jeanne Baré – the first woman to circumnavigate the globe
Born in France in 1740, Jeanne Baré grew up in poverty in Burgundy. She was always interested in plants and natural remedies, and became housekeeper to a naturalist called Philibert de Commerson in the 1760s. They worked and lived together and despite him being married they became lovers. Commerson was asked to join explorer Louis de Bougainville’s mission to be the first Frenchman to sail around the world and collect plant specimens to use in the French colonies. Jeanne wanted to come with him and although he was allowed to take a servant, women were forbidden on French Navy ships. So she decided to dress as a man and go by the name of Jean Baret.
The plan worked, and she set off on the Etoile in 1766. She strapped down her breasts and worked as hard as any of the men, but the crew got suspicious. She managed to put them off by telling them she was a eunuch until locals in Tahiti revealed her true sex. Jeanne and Commerson left the ship in Mauritius and she ended up living there for the next few years. After Commerson died she married a French navel officer and finally finished her circumnavigation of the globe when she arrived back in France in 1775.
You can read more of Jeanne’s amazing story in the book The Discovery of Jeanne Baret.
Ida Pfeiffer – the first solo female traveller
As a child in Vienna in the 1800s, Ida was a tomboy who dressed in boy’s clothes, was educated like a boy and travelled with her father to Palestine and Egypt. But then after his death when she was nine she was made to be more ladylike, wear dresses and become a wife and mother. When her much older husband died and her sons had grown up she finally got chance to follow her dreams and travel the world. She started off with trips along the Danube to the Middle East and then to Scandinavia. She travelled alone and on a budget, staying with local people and taking local transport. She also collected plant and rock samples to sell back home and wrote a book after each trip to help pay for the next.
In 1847 she did her biggest trip yet, setting off around the world at the age of 50. She travelled through South America, China, India, the Middle East, Russia and Greece. Sometimes she had to dress in men’s clothing for safety and she undertook some extreme journeys, like 300 miles by camel across the Iraqi desert. She became a bit of a celebrity and by the time she set off on her second RTW trip she had offers of free travel and places to stay. This time she visited South Africa, Borneo, Indonesia, Australia and the Andes over three years. Her third and final RTW trip only got as far as Madagascar, where she got involved in a goverment coup and caught a tropical disease which ended up killing her.
You can still get an anthology of her books as the Works of Ida Pfeiffer.
Nelly Bly – Around the World in 72 Days
Born in 1864, American journalist Elizabeth Cochrane was better known by the pen name Nellie Bly. This fearless lady was one of the world’s first investigative journalists, going undercover in a sweatshop and spending 10 days in a mental asylum to expose its horrifying conditions. But she was always looking for the next challenge. So after Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days, she came up with the idea of trying to beat it in real life. Her newspaper bosses wanted to send a man instead, but relented after she said “Very well. Send the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him”.
She set off from New Jersey in 1889 on a journey that covered 24,899 miles. And all in the one dress – the male newspaper staff laughed that she’d have a dozen trunks so she set off in with just one tiny bag. Her minimalist packing list included a dressing gown, hankerchiefs, spare underwear, a flask and cup, toiletries and writing materials. She travelled by boat, train, horse and rickshaw, battling crippling seasickness and no end of male suitors. But she was determined to make the journey alone. And so she did, and with eight days to spare and setting a new world record. It took her 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds in the end, even with a quick detour to meet Jules Verne en route. The public loved the story, with crowds surrounding her train back home. But after that she was onto the next challenge and ended up as an inventor and industrialist.
You can read more about Nelly’s journey in her book – Around the World in 72 Days.
Annie Londonderry – the first woman to cycle around the world
Latvian-born Annie Cohen Kopchovsky emigrated to America as a child in the 1870s and ended up as the unlikely first international female sports star. Aged only 23 she took on a high-stakes wager which meant she had to cycle around the world within 15 months and earn $5000 on the way. It was a shocking thing for a Victorian woman to do, especially as she left a husband and three children behind and had only just learnt to ride a bike the day before. Annie packed only a change of clothes and a pearl revolver, and quickly swapped her long skirts and heavy woman’s bike for bloomers and a lighter man’s bike.
Annie earnt her money by turning herself into a mobile billboard, carrying banners and ribbons with the names of sponsors. She also did personal appearances and sold photographs and even got her name sponsored – the Londonderry Spring Water Company paid her $100 to change it to Annie Londonderry. She was an amazing self-promoter and was featured in newspapers around the world. She finished her journey back in Boston 14 days ahead of her 15 month deadline, despite having to ride part of it with a broken arm. Her journey was called “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman” by newspapers, but her celebrity faded and her story was forgotten for years.
Her great-nephew recently published a book about her travels – Around The World On Two Wheels.